Howard Middle School’s administration faces backlash from parents, students over changes

Following+a+series+of+changes+in+the+first+few+weeks+of+school%2C+the+Howard+administration+has+reversed+several+of+the+initial+changes.+

Greta Gustafson

Following a series of changes in the first few weeks of school, the Howard administration has reversed several of the initial changes.

Greta Gustafson

After a year with an interim principal, David T. Howard Middle School started the 2022-2023 school year with a new principal, Janet McDowell. With the last-minute arrival of McDowell, several controversial changes were implemented, many of which have now been rectified, though others have a more lasting impact. 

A week before school started, McDowell sent Howard parents a message stating clear backpacks would be mandated for all children. That was the first of multiple changes implemented by the administration. McDowell did not respond to request for comment. 

I’m flabbergasted that these issues weren’t vetted before,” sixth grade parent Rebecca Moulton said about the changes. “Howard should be the crown jewel middle school of APS given its legacy, community and location, instead we are taking many steps backward.”

Similar to Moulton, parents quickly reacted, many turning to Facebook groups set up by the school’s PTO. 

Parent Jay Rajiva said he found the lack of communication between the administration and community for major decisions difficult. 

“I think the school needs to work with parents to see this as a collaboration where our voices are genuinely heard,” Rajiva said. “Not just presenting us with decisions like, ‘If you don’t like it too bad.’”

After pushback from parents, McDowell released a statement retracting the previous decision to mandate clear backpacks. 

I was not able to engage with the GoTeam in time to move forward with a full implementation of our clear book bag process this school year,” McDowell’s statement said. “Our communication to parents will now state that ‘Howard Middle School encourages all parents to purchase clear book bags for students for the 2022-23 school year. However, students will not be penalized for not having a clear book bag.’”

Decisions like requiring clear backpacks were made without consulting parents, PTO members or the GOTeam. While some parents were upset with the initial lack of communication, the administration faced more backlash once students returned to school, and a number of additional unexpected changes were made such as the enforcement of a stricter dress code.

“The girls in my daughters’ 8th grade math cohort were made to stand and line up by the school admin to have their shorts examined,” parent Lisa Smith* said. “Boys were left to sit and watch this bizarre, humiliating exercise targeted at their female peers.” 

Following this incident, several students, including student Katie Brown*, protested by wearing tank tops and shorts. The students also wrote, “I am not a distraction” on their arms. 

“We wanted to make a statement because what they were doing was completely unfair,” Brown said. “The fact that they took the time away from class to line us up and measure our shorts was like something out of a movie.”

McDowell confirmed in a Zoom meeting with sixth grade parents that she was not aware of the incident when it happened and thought it was unacceptable. The defense for the stricter dress code was to be more in line with Midtown’s dress code, though dress code is not strictly enforced at Midtown. 

Other changes that took both students and parents by surprise the first week, but have since been lifted, included assigned lunch tables, no outdoor time and restrictive bathroom and water breaks. 

“The assigned tables at lunch were really difficult for me because I don’t have many friends in my homeroom, and last year we would get to eat outside and with whoever we wanted,” 8th grader Lillian Anyes said. “That was all taken away during that first week.” 

Students exit the building after school. (Greta Gustafson)

Co-president of the PTO, Susanna Roberts, blamed the last-minute decisions as well as the miscommunication on the suddenness of McDowell’s arrival and her inexperience in Atlanta Public Schools. 

“She’s the only new principal in the cluster, and we’re expecting her to know our history and how we like to have communication, which she doesn’t, and that’s not her fault, it’s just reality,” Roberts said. 

Returning Howard students were surprised to see on the first day that they traveled to each of their classes with their homerooms, exclusively, the same group of 25-30 kids. In the past, each class had a different group of students. 

Sixth grade parent Amanda Scott* said her child was stressed with the lack of social interaction the schedule change and other restrictions caused.

“The first week, [Scott’s son was] very stressed,” Scott said. “They are coming from elementary school, and the environment didn’t feel welcoming. There was no joy in the school environment because they are in a class with students that might not be people they’re friends with, and they are looking for familiar faces, but they can’t even sit with them at lunch.” 

The biggest issue that parents and students across all grade levels complained about was the segregation between Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and on-level students. In previous years, GATE students took two gifted classes and two on-level classes, allowing students of all academic abilities to interact with one another. This year, students in the GATE program take all gifted classes, and other students take all on-level courses, allowing for little interaction between these two groups of students. 

“It [the separation of gifted and on-level students] is a huge equity issue,” Rajiva said. “All it does is disadvantage kids who are not engaged, and it impoverishes everybody’s experience. Middle school is a bigger world, and not coming into contact with students cuts along all kinds of lines.”

Scott shared similar concerns.

“Separating students based on scores or student outcomes is problematic because it doesn’t allow students to work with each other — with people from across a spectrum,” Scott said. “And that’s another thing, GATE is not a 0 or 100 designation, it’s not that you are GATE or not GATE, it’s a spectrum, and students might not make it into GATE because of one point less than the threshold, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be GATE.” 

During a meeting with McDowell, several parents brought up the issue, which she acknowledged and noted is the most effective way, at the moment, to meet every child’s needs. McDowell mentioned several times that there were parents in attendance at a May 31 meeting few community members knew about. At the meeting, McDowell said parents who had children in the GATE program wanted their child to be able to have all four honors core classes, as opposed to the two that were offered in previous years for GATE students. 

“If we redid the schedules, we will be integrated, it would only be academically, not socially, not racially; so the classes won’t look different,” McDowell said in a Zoom meeting with sixth grade parents. “So, when it comes to GATE versus not-GATE, I have to also respect those parents that have gifted students, but we are going to look at the MAP results and make some decisions based on that.” 

Though some clarification was provided for parents on the separation of the GATE and non-GATE students by team, several parents including Sara Zeigler, who was on the call with McDowell, expressed her concerns about the lack of community engagement in the decision. 

“You keep mentioning the May 31st meeting and the overwhelming mass majority of the population did not know about the meeting and were not engaged, and so, it feels a little bit like anecdotal evidence from people, instead of giving feedback from the whole community,” Zeigler said during the meeting. “I’m hearing from, and have heard in other meetings from parents who have children in GATE, are very concerned about what it means to segregate kids from non-GATE, as well.”

Moulton expressed concerns about the lasting social and emotional impact of the divide and the administration’s use of the terms “gifted” and “intellectual” versus “General Ed” and cautioned against using such labels. 

“I’m concerned about referring to groups of our children now as ‘gifted’ and ‘intellectual’ and ‘General Ed’,” Moulton said. “It would make my daughter feel terrible to be called ‘General Ed’ by the principal or teachers, especially to her peers.”

Though the meeting with parents was broadcasted on Zoom, meetings from the first week were only available in-person, limiting the number of parents able to attend. After backlash from parents about not being able to watch the meeting, the administration provided an online version, though it was not recorded. 

“There was an in-person meeting that was by team this past week, but it was in person; so I couldn’t attend,” Rajiva said. “It was not recorded for Zoom, and there was no virtual access, so that felt like a false engagement.”

Another problem was the removal of the “snake schedule,” something that was promised to parents of rising sixth graders last spring at orientation. The “snake schedule” is unique to Howard, and it structures classes so students rotate the time of day that they go to each class. 

“We went from thinking in the spring that there would be this really nice open, rotating schedule that gives kids a chance to take different classes at different times of day,” Rajiva said. “We found out in July that this schedule would be changed, and again, no explanation, no direct communication, just, ‘This is going to be what it is.’”

In a zoom call with parents, McDowell said the “snake schedule” was removed because teachers said it was too chaotic. She also said she had not been shown the presentation in the spring that parents were shown, presenting the statistical data and benefits of the “snake schedule.” 

Students, including eighth grader Sophia Moscoliov, were disappointed by the removal of the “snake schedule”.

“I liked being able to have different classes at different times of the day because it made the school day more interesting and gave me a chance to equally pay attention in class since in the afternoons I am usually not as engaged,” Moscoliov said. 

Following the initial rocky first weeks, the administration has made several reversals on previous policies, including open seating at lunch, less enforcement of the dress code, more frequent opportunities to use the bathroom and get water, and have hosted meetings with parents in-person and on Zoom. Several parents acknowledge the progress and are curious to see how the more permanent changes will be addressed.

“My concern is whether the harder to change things like the separation between the students and the ‘snake schedule’ can be fixed or whether students may have to live a year like this,” Scott said. “But, you know it is a new principal, and she is learning about the community and its needs, and I hope that she will be able to learn and adjust to the needs of this community.” 

Roberts agrees and is excited to see how McDowell leads the school this year.

“My biggest concern is just giving her time and space to get her feet on the ground, to learn Howard, learn the community and be able to learn our students,” Roberts said. “I really am excited about Ms. McDowell, I think she is a really great leader and I think she has a lot of experience.”

Parent Marc Jones* understood the annoyance from some parents and students, though he noted that it’s only the third week, and changes are not permanent. 

“The first week was a little rocky, which I don’t think was just the administration’s fault, I think there were a number of factors, but I think the second week was much better,” Jones said. “Communication is getting better, and I think things are going to smooth out.”

During the Aug. 12 meeting, McDowell reassured parents that all changes are not permanent but that they are figuring out new ways to proceed under the new administration and new school year. 

“Things are not wrong; they are not right; they are just different,” McDowell said on a call with sixth grade parents. “We are going to take it one day, and one student at a time.”  

* Marc Jones, Amanda Scott, Lisa Smith and Katie Brown are anonymous names